Jamie McLean returns to Asheville with a collection of new songs

KEEP IT SHORT: Even though he’s a fixture of the jam band scene, singer and guitarist Jamie McLean puts strong emphasis on concise songwriting for his studio albums. The former Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist plays Isis Music Hall Sept. 12. Photo by Evan Felts

Throughout the first decade of this century, Jamie McLean played guitar in beloved New Orleans institution Dirty Dozen Brass Band. For the last several years, he has served as guitarist for another Crescent City legend, Aaron Neville. But alongside those duties, McLean has long since established himself as a singer and songwriter in his own right. Touring in support of One and Only, the latest album from the Jamie McLean Band, the guitarist plays Isis Music Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Partly through his work with the Dirty Dozen, McLean has connections to the jam band scene. But the thread that runs through his work — especially on his studio albums — is an emphasis on concise songwriting. “More than anything, I feel that the songs are the strongest part,” he says. “I always want to focus my energy on that.”

One and Only is a varied collection of songs; the title track features an arrangement that’s very much in the Nashville tradition, while other tunes lean more in a rock direction. McLean laughs when he’s asked if he’s trying to confound those who would try to pigeonhole him into one style of music. “When I sit down to write, I don’t consciously think, ‘I’m going to write a rock song now,’” he says. “These things just sort of present themselves.”

He does allow that several of the new album’s songs are related in their subject matter. “There are a few new New Orleans-style funky numbers,” he says, “but there are a lot of, for a lack of a better word, love songs.”

He adds, “But I like having a couple different little things to keep interest. Especially in the era of the short attention span.” But the main objective, as McLean puts it, is, “trying to focus on writing great songs.”

He offers the example of one of his favorite acts, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “They’re a prime example of a really great band with great songs,” McLean says. “They could be concise on an album, and then go rock the songs onstage. And that’s something we’re shooting for.”

In pursuit of that goal, the guitarist tries to create music that feeds listeners three ways. “The saxophone player for the Dirty Dozen used to say the band gives you something for the mind, for the body and the soul,” McLean says. “And the biggest part of that is the soul.” He notes that he hasn’t always fully appreciated those values.

“When I first joined the Dirty Dozen, I had been studying a lot and playing a lot. A big part of my plan was trying to be flashy, playing a lot of notes and showing off all the stuff that I had been working on.” He laughs when he remembers how that went over: “After my big long solo with all these notes, the baritone sax player would come out and play one note over and over and over and over. And the place would go crazy! I quickly realized that it’s not the number of notes; it’s the feeling that you put into it.”

And that feeling is something McLean tries to convey with his songwriting as well. Though he typically writes alone, in the months before making One and Only, he decided to try a different approach: co-writing. So he headed to Nashville. “There’s a different creative thing that can happen when you get more than one person in the room,” he says.

McLean feels he learned a great deal in his Nashville songwriting sessions. He says that the regimen — one co-writing session in the morning, another in the afternoon — was something like a gym workout. “Whether those songs would ever end up on an album is irrelevant,” he says. (Ultimately, most tracks selected for One and Only were the product of writing solo.) “It was more a matter of getting the repetitions in, flexing that muscle.”

McLean is a regular visitor to Asheville. With the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, he performed at the Bele Chere festival in 2005; with his own band, he played that festival twice. When the Dirty Dozen returned in 2010 for that year’s Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam, McLean was in the group as well. “I remember playing The Orange Peel a lot with them, too,” he says. “Asheville was always a regular stop.”

But he notes that, for whatever reason, there was a gap of a few years when he didn’t find himself on an Asheville stage. “But then last year, we played the Diana Wortham Theatre with Marc Broussard,” McLean recalls. “That was a sold-out show. People came up to the merch table afterward and asked, ‘When’s the next one?’ So we quickly turned around and booked a show at Isis in May of this year.” And, this month, he’s headed back again.

WHO: The Jamie McLean Band
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 8:30 p.m., $15 advance/$18 day of show

About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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